It is the opening night of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and I am arriving, 16 hours after flying out of Pearson, on the red carpet of the sprawling Thermal Hotel, built, like so much around here, to spill halfway up a verdant hill.
Down below, the cobblestone streets are thronged with weekenders from nearby Prague, doubling the local population in an annual boon to the tourist trade; the city accommodates this fugacious business like a glove accommodates a hand. Later, in the parks that line the town's winding central canal, one will find a teenage bacchanal: thousands come to dance and covertly drink while, inside, some 200 films screen for visiting cinephiles. For now, the lot of us hang around in gathering anticipation. This modest spa town, with its old-world elegance and decadent, chocolate-box vistas, will teem for eight days with the excited and eager.
This evening we have converged on Thermal's opulent Grand Hall for what I'm lead to believe will be a brief introductory gala. It goes on to last three hours. Karlovy Vary has what you might call a dilatory manner, not unpleasantly: the festival is leisurely, as lavish as The Toronto Internation Film Festival but shorn of that event's frenzied speed and celebrity-courting grandeur. (You don't need to trump up the grandeur of a festival when it's situated among some of the most striking architecture in the world.)
Still, this opening ceremony is a strictly black-tie affair – one of my colleagues is nearly refused entry for having the gall to wear dark brown wingtips with his tuxedo – and both the Czech paparazzi and TV crews are on hand to sop up the glamour. Celebrity proper only materializes with the arrival by limousine of Richard Gere: he has been invited by the festival to receive their Crystal Globe for "outstanding contribution to world cinema," whatever that may mean. It is, in any case, a compelling reason for a movie star to visit the Czech Republic.
Taking our seats in the Grand Hall, the crowd of many hundreds are treated to an hourlong chronicle of Karlovy Vary's past. This week the festival celebrates its 50th year – quite an achievement, certainly, and a good occasion for the look back afforded by this talk. Naturally the address is in Czech, and the live translation meant to be provided to me by headset only works intermittently; but my impression is that over the years the Karlovy Vary Festival has endured more than its share of world-historical force, beleaguered by the vicissitudes of time in a way only possible for a festival that has survived both communism and the tail end of the Second World War. This is an extraordinary city with an extraordinary film festival. I was glad to salute its history alongside people who lived through it and before the people who helped see it through.
Gere, meanwhile, has much less to recommend him as an outstanding contributor. Rising to the stage at the end of the historical presentation, he admits that he isn't comfortable with speeches and would prefer to dive in unprepared – and what follows is nothing if not spontaneous. Halting, digressive, and resoundingly dull, Gere's speech ping-pongs from platitude to cliche in the style of someone receding into reflex. (In a single breath he manages to flit from praise of the Dalai Lama to an "old Jewish saying" that almost certainly isn't one.)
It's an embarrassment that seems, frankly, quite unworthy of the festival that invited him. And so it proves, too, with the film Gere is nominally there to present: Oren Moverman's flaccid, Gere-flattering Time Out of Mind, which premiered to little notice, justifiably, last fall in Toronto. Gere stars as the world's most handsome homeless man in what is plainly an awards vehicle, rendering him lightly bedraggled in a tatty fisherman's cap as he slums it in the streets, hamming it up unbearably. We had just seen Richard Gere dubiously exalted. We hardly needed a film to insist how great he is for another two hours.
Much improved is the programming that follows. The opening night feature notwithstanding, this year's Karlovy Vary slate is something of a curatorial coup, drawing on highlights of the festival circuit (Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart, Gaspar Noé's Love), holdovers from at home and abroad (Inherent Vice, Slow West), and all manner of intriguing international premieres (much-touted Czech debut Home Care, Kim Ki-duk's Stop).
It's surely a testament to this savvy that I find myself at a masterpiece on only my second day: the seven-hour, three-volume Arabian Nights, by Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes, making a bold appearance at Karlovy Vary after dividing audiences and critics along the faultline of accessibility in Cannes. The first volume's sold-out screening sent the lion's share of an audience of 300 fleeing for the exits after 20 slow-burning minutes, but I consider that risk of alienation a hallmark of good programming. The few attendees who remained through Arabian Nights were rewarded with a film of bountiful wit and mind-expanding intelligence.
I found much else to admire elsewhere, too. Sunday brought a fascinating hourlong masterclass talk by George A. Romero on the subject of his filmmaking and the state of modern horror – precisely the sort of peripheral activity that can enrich a festival's offerings immeasurably. I take a chance, that evening, on another Cannes title, Stéphane Brizé's The Measure of a Man. Vincent Lindon won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance as an out-of-work, middle-aged factory worker in dogged, degrading pursuit of gainful employment, but reviews were somewhat mild, the common line being that it's "Dardennes-light."
Brizé favours long takes, true, and has a keen eye for the iniquities suffered by the working class. But where the Dardenne brothers are masters of the quiet tragedy, The Measure of a Man is a darkly – very darkly – comic story, funny in the way that, say, Kafka is funny. Like Laurent Cantet's excellent Time Out, the film is very smart about the ways that our work defines us, and how the hole left by sudden unemployment isn't simply economic.
Comparing Lindon here to Gere in Time Out of Mind is instructive: Lindon, with great subtlety, disappears into a down-and-out milquetoast; Gere, ever the star, can't help but be conspicuous. It's the former that proves most representative of the Karlovy Vary Festival in its 50th year. Excellence is on display – but there's no need to get showy about it.
Special to The Globe and Mail.